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How the non-ag world sees GMOs

Karl Grossniklaus farmers market
CARE ABOUT GMOS? Students and adults browsing through a farmers market on the Purdue University campus were surveyed about GMOs. More than one-third had no opinion as to whether GMOs are good or bad.
A survey of college students turns up interesting thoughts about genetically modified organisms.

By Katlynn-Ann Douglass and Karl Grossniklaus

“Genetically modified” can be a scary term for the public. A genetically modified organism refers to food that is grown from seeds that have been genetically engineered in a laboratory.

But if you think about it, all foods are genetically modified, says Peter Goldsbrough, a professor in Purdue University’s Botany and Plant Pathology Department and a GMO expert. Crops have been altered genetically throughout history. If you look at how most crops look today compared to when they were first discovered long ago, they look very different, he says. Through selective breeding, cross-breeding, transgenics and other natural methods, crops have changed.

Good or bad? In an unofficial survey of 30 students on the Purdue campus, 50% of the students identified GMOs as good, 13% said they were bad, and 37% had no opinion about GMOs. Most students understood what GMOs were, but they didn’t know which foods were genetically modified.

Neither caring nor having the desire to know is among the biggest contributing factors to public ignorance on GMOs. Out of the 30 random students surveyed, 37% said they didn’t have an opinion on GMOs. Many people know of genetically modified products, but they don’t care to find out what they actually are or what they contribute to. Likewise, many people drive a car every day, but not many people know how one works — nor do they care to know.

Farmers are a necessity in the agricultural production world, but so is the public, Goldsbrough says. Farmers rely on the public to purchase the crops they produce.

Rachel Flanders of Flanders A-Maizing Grain, Noblesville, Ind., says, “Growers should care about what the general public thinks about GMOs, because if people stop buying genetically modified foods, we lose money. It’s all about profit for growers, and we don’t make a living if our products aren’t purchased.” The public’s perception of GMOs can affect the economic standpoint for the farmer’s business, she adds.

How common are GMOs? One common misconception the survey found was the belief that most of what people consume is genetically modified. If people think the majority of products are genetically modified, that can affect the foods they purchase.

Some students, 70% of those surveyed, said they believed everything on the market currently was genetically modified. In fact, GMOs approved in the U.S. include: corn, soybeans, cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, canola, sugarbeets, rice, flax, cantaloupe, squash, radicchio, papaya, alfalfa and wheat, according to the Organic Consumers Association.

How does science work? Similarly, a general lack of understanding of science contributes to the different perceptions about genetically modified foods. Goldsbrough says there is a lot of “misinformation about science in general.” For example, contrary to popular belief, genetic modification has little to no effect on crop yield, according to a 2016 National Academy of Sciences report.

Rather, the primary value of genetically modified crops engineered in the U.S. is for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, according to Colorado State University Extension.

Who shapes opinions? So if students know so little about GMOs, how did they form their opinions? One factor influencing the students surveyed was Bill Nye the Science Guy!

One student cited family as a factor in influencing perception by stating, “My mom presents me with research studies claiming Monsanto is ruining the world and studies done in rats that claim GMOs contribute to lots of health issues like liver or kidney damage or some cancers.”

Other factors the students identified as influencing their perceptions about genetically modified foods included “research, scientific articles, their education and family values.”

Can minds be changed? In the Purdue survey, 63% of students said they would be willing to change their perception if given enough information about GMOs. Although this seems like a simple solution of giving the public more information, according to Purdue communications expert Beth Forbes, information has very little to do with getting the public to change their views.

People make their decisions for a variety of different reasons, including their culture, values, experiences, environmental awareness and what others in their community think. 

People’s beliefs come from a combination of upbringing, environment and their education, says Forbes. These different backgrounds allow for different perceptions. Generally with new technologies, “the perception of natural is good; altered is not good.”

Bigger picture. The Purdue students were more positive about GMOs than the average American. In a national public opinion survey, when asked which of three positions best fit their views on GMOs, about half of Americans (48%) said the health effects of GMOs are no different than other foods, 39% said GMOs are worse for one’s health, and 10% said such foods are better for one’s health, according to the Pew Research Center.

Additionally, 43% of men and 55% of women believe genetically modified foods are fairly to very likely to lead to health problems. Women are more skeptical about their health and well-being than men, according to Pew. Many fear what they are putting into not only their bodies, but also the bodies of their loved ones.

But according Goldsbrough, “At the moment, genetically altered foods pose no threat to our health.” Still, people have negative perceptions of genetically modified crops because they do not understand how genetic modification works, he says. A lack of understanding leads to misinterpretation and miscommunication. With people not understanding what all is done genetically to the products they consume, they feel they have no control and reject them.

Public opinion. Public opinion will sway and change, and can be difficult to control. When the popular belief is that most foods are GMOs, it leads to very broad statements about food in general being bad, Goldsbrough says. Even if these beliefs are factually inaccurate, they must be catered to to ensure sales. Something as helpful and potentially industry-changing as GMOs will be unusable if consumers have a strong reaction against them, experts conclude.

Douglass and Grossniklaus are seniors in the Purdue University Ag Communication program.

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